Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Gay Gay is Gay: Political Correctness and the Evolution of Words

Language is an amazing thing. There are many reasons that it is so amazing, but one of the more obvious reasons is because of how fluid it is. Words come into existence (email), go out of existence (affuage1), change in meaning (“awful” used to mean amazing, or “full of awe”) and can even morph to fit other grammatical categories (google → googled, from noun to verb). And as every high school English student knows, it's amazing how much languages can change over a few hundred years (Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote → When April with his showers sweet with fruit)!

Now, the interesting thing with the examples I just listed is that their changes came about completely naturally. No one ever said “okay, let’s use the word ‘awful’ in a different way!” Much like biological evolution, linguistic evolution is a slow, unguided process. Here are a few other examples of words whose meanings have changed over time...

Nice - This comes from the Latin “not to know.” Originally a “nice” person was someone who was ignorant or unaware.
Artificial - This originally meant “full of artistic or technical skill.”
Manufacture - From the Latin meaning “to make by hand” this originally signified things that were created by craftsmen.
Bad - This once meant “a womanish-man” or "hermaphrodite."

However, when you do start to notice a change in word meaning, it can be quite annoying. Over the past few years, people have increasingly started to use the word “literally” to mean the exact opposite. For example, “I literally died of embarrassment.” And while it is annoying to hear people use the word that way, it is also fascinating, since we are witnessing a word slowing changing, right before our eyes.

However, there are also many examples of words whose meanings have been reappropriated by a group, in hopes of reclaiming it, and giving the word a different spin. This isn’t as successful as people tend to think, simply because we don’t really hear about words that haven’t successfully been reappropriated. However, some words have been embraced, and given a positive spin by the group they reference, such as: Geek, Guido, Jesus-Freak, Mormon, Nerd, Nigga and Redneck. Of course, people who don’t consider themselves as belonging to one of those groups probably wouldn’t care to be called one of those things2.

That brings me to my main point, which is about the word “gay.” As most people know, it used to mean “full of joy, merry, light-hearted, carefree.” Indeed, this was the main meaning from the late 1300's up until the mid 1900's3. However, in the 1400's, it also took on a meaning of immortality. By the 1600's, it had somewhat of a meaning of promiscuity, as brothels were referred to as “gay houses”, prostitutes were “gay women”, and womanizers were “gay men.” In the early 1800's, it meant “carefree” and then started to take on the meaning of “homosexual” in the 1940s. Finally, in the 1970’s, the homosexual community adopted it, and successfully reappropriated it.

The word “gay” really is a phenomenal example of the evolution of language, and just how diverse word definitions can be over time. However, it is also ironic that since a minority group has adopted it, there now exists a social pressure that tells us that we can’t let the meaning change again.

Political correctness tells us that using the word gay to mean “stupid” or “lame” is inappropriate, mean, offensive, insensitive, etc., since it is equating something bad with homosexuals. The problem here is that this is just another example of language evolving. Just as it has done many times in the past, the word is taking on a new meaning once again. It seems deeply hypocritical for someone to say “Yes, the word ‘gay’ has meant many things in the past, and it was recently adopted to mean homosexual. However, if the word changes again, and means something bad—that’s wrong.” Sorry, but you can’t change a word, and then get upset when it changes again, especially when the change is completely organic. One might argue, “Well, it’s not fair to take a word that describes an aspect of a person, and then let it mean something bad.” Well, this happens all the time, and there are numerous examples of words that we use which were originally used to describe something about a person, but now are meant as something negative.

For example, the words “moron”, “imbecile” and “idiot” were originally terms used by medical professionals to refer to different low IQ levels in adults. An idiot was described as an adult who was so mentally incapacitated that they were incapable of ordinary reasoning. An imbecile was an adult with the mental capacity of a 6-9 year old, and a moron was an adult with the mental capacity of an 8-12 year old.

Because of this, should we throw a hissy fit and boycott Napoleon Dynamite4, simply because the filmmakers are being insensitive to adults with a mental capacity of a newborn child? No, that would be retarded5. Likewise, should we get upset when someone uses the word gay to refer to something stupid? Only, it seems, if we want to be hypocrites.

As I observe political correctness in action, it seems that the majority of it is centered around a quibble over semantics, as well as the belief that there is some deep atrocity being committed if someone is offended by something. Being offended is part of life, and no one has the right to constrict how someone speaks, simply because they are offended by it. As an atheist, I am part of the second least liked group of people in America (Scientologists are first6), and I see/hear things that potentially offend me all of the time. Should I be offended if I sneeze and someone says “God bless you”? No. I realize that it is mostly just a figure of speech, and I don’t give it a second thought. And even if it did bother me, should I really expect everyone I come into contact with to adopt a language change so as not to offend me? Of course not. To make a fuss about it would only embarrass myself and make me look hypersensitive and entitled.

Likewise, some people feel offended if they are not addressed in the proper pronoun. “Yes, my sex is male, but I identify as a woman, so please refer to me as in the gender neutral term ‘ze’”7, and feel this should be an option on legal forms and whatnot. This is simply absurd. It would be akin to me saying “don’t call me an atheist, call me a methodological naturalist” and insisting that any form that asks for your religious view have this option (as well as “strong atheist”, “weak atheist” “agnostic-atheist”, etc).

And just so people don’t think I am picking on homosexuals or liberals, conservative Christians have the same problem. Whenever a billboard goes up promoting a positive image of atheism, there is a huge uproar of people saying “I am offended by that! I don’t want to see it when I drive to work every morning”, and demand that it be removed.

The best way to deal with this is not to try and control how people use a word, (as this sort of thing tends to have the opposite effect8) but to just realize that language isn’t something you can control, and trying to manufacture linguistic changes is almost always an exercise in futility. Remember, if someone offends you, that is not a crime, and if a word offends you, it’s in your best interest to get over it. Being offended is just part of living with people who have different opinions. Deal with it.

I assume everyone will understand that the title of this blog post is a point of showing how many different meanings the word "gay" has assumed over the years. How anyone chooses to interpret its meaning is up to them.
1. It meant “the right to cut wood in a forest for a family fire," but stopped being used in the mid 1800’s.
2. This raises the question, have these words successfully been reappropriated if they are only viewed positively by the group they refer to?
3. While the origin of gay is disputed, it may originate from the 12th century, in which it meant “beautiful and well dressed.”
5. See what I did there, eh!?
6. However, it seems to depend on the options that the survey taker is given. A survey done in 2006 found that atheists are the least trusted group out of all minority groups, including immigrants, gays and lesbians, conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims.
7. There are a number of different “gender neutral pronouns” that have been introduced over the years by different groups. These terms include Ze, Co, Phe, Hy, Ot, as well as others. As you can tell by the list, none have succeeded in making a dent in popular culture. Though, trying to introduce any sort of manufactured language generally fails completely.
8. Ironic Process Theory states that trying to suppress certain thoughts just makes them more persistent!


  1. I sneezed the other day and someone said, "God Bless You" and I said, " You Fuckin take that back you insensitive prick, did you even think before you spoke....yeah thats right... I'm a fuckin atheist, bet you feel like a real retard now." =)... well this didn't really happen, but I had to share the mental image I got. lil funny.

  2. I think that "google" should be a new verb that means something similar to: "search for it on the Internet."

  3. mc2020, I think it pretty much already is.

  4. This article is so gay.

  5. What is irrefutable is that there absolutely seems to be a ""gay agenda." If you accept my premise, you might want to know what that agenda is? It would appear to be general acceptance and the patina of normalcy. For years the American Psychological Association had classified homosexuality as an illness.

    1. That is not irrefutable evidence of anything except that science progresses with new evidence. Otherwise, you are diving straight off the cliff into conspiracy theories.

  6. Zackary... very thoughtful post. I will refer to it in a post I am writing about tango and the bizarre attempt at neutering the roles. Tango is a dance between Yin & Yang--to very different energies that are replete in our world. The terms that are being preferred are "leader" and "follower." Is it not interesting that "followers" are paid far less (less valued) than "leaders." So in a sentense: "Let's devalue a group of people with established words (leader/follower) but be 'inclusive' by always using this devaluing term to men who want to learn this role in classes."

    Regarding changing words: Homosexual, gay and now the LGBT community prefers the term "Queer Tango." Native Americans, at least in part, want to be called Indian. I have gay friends I do not want to call "queer" and I have Indian friends who are from India, and I would rather not call Native Americans "Indians" even if they prefer that term. I have friends who are African American who are white, born in South Africa or born in Egypt, a white-looking psychiatrist friend.

  7. One more word that has changed in my lifetime: "Too." It was always a negative thing that followed "too." Now, very much like Spanish's "demasiado," something can be "too easy" and that is at times good (demasiado fácil) and other times not good at all. "It is too easy to figure out our stupid congress. It seems that politicians often attempt to find solutions that are too easy." For foreigners learning English it is hard for them to realize that popular language can use this positive connotations at times, but never formal applications. Another: "Terrific" (causing terror), and my favorite -- "Catsup" (cat shit).... no, only kidding. :-) Some excellent chefs would agree, however.

    And even if you do not believe in them, nevertheless, I pray that the well-hung, naked and paradoxically gay gods of fertility bless your fine blog. --Mark